Minimizing Climate Change Impacts and Feedbacks: Multidisciplinary and Strategic Utility-Scale Solar Energy Development

EPA Grant Number: F13B20442
Title: Minimizing Climate Change Impacts and Feedbacks: Multidisciplinary and Strategic Utility-Scale Solar Energy Development
Investigators: Hernandez, Rebecca
Institution: Stanford University
EPA Project Officer: Lee, Sonja
Project Period: August 1, 2014 through August 1, 2016
Project Amount: $84,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2013) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships , Fellowship - Earth Sciences


Renewable energy is on the rise, largely to reduce individual and domestic dependency on fossil fuels and to mitigate the impact of climate change. The generation of electricity from sunlight directly (photovoltaic, or PV) or indirectly (concentrating solar power) over the last decade has been growing exponentially in the United States and globally. This research seeks to determine the impact of climate change on renewable energy systems, as well as the environmental consequences of USSE systems as a climate mitigation strategy.


Interactions among climate change, land use and land cover change (a major driver of global environmental change) and USSE development will be explored using a multidisciplinary approach. Specifically, this project will seek to (1) quantify the land-use efficiency (Wm-2) of USSE installations and identify technologies and development strategies that minimize land-use efficiency; (2) assess the capacity-based and generation-based solar energy technical potential within a solar energy hotspot (i.e., California) and compare results with current patterns of land use and land cover change—an overlooked constituent of greenhouse gas emissions—associated with USSE development; and (3) use a global climate model to simulate several climate change scenarios to determine where solar energy capacity for PV schemes—the most widely deployed technology type—may lower due to increasing surface temperatures (which reduce panel efficiency) and where it will be maximized at the global-scale.

Expected Results:

Three findings from this research are likely: (1) the land-use efficiency of USSE will be modulated by technology, land ownership and power plant array design; (2) generation-based solar technical potential of USSE will meet energy consumption demand when developed within environmentally compatible areas; and (3) crystalline silicon PV module capacity will be reduced in regions around the globe—including deserts of the southwest United States, northern Africa, the Middle East and Australia—in response to increases in global-mean surface temperature projected for the 21st century. Capacity is likely to increase in a few regions, including, central-western South America, western China and Mongolia. Based on results from the comparison of the spread of members from the uncorrected and corrected Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 ensemble, the uncertainty arising from internal climate system variability is likely to be smaller than the uncertainty arising from climate model formulation.

Potential to Further Environmental/Human Health Protection

Solar energy has several positive aspects—reduced air pollution and greenhouse gases, stabilization of degraded land, increased energy independence, job opportunities, acceleration of rural electrification and an improved quality of life in developing countries—that make it particularly attractive in many regions of the world. This body of research will provide novel and exigent information that can be employed to (1) mitigate climate change by maximizing USSE efficiency through the strategic and spatially explicit planning of USSE installations, (2) identify and reduce land use and land cover change effects—including air pollution— on ecosystems associated with USSE development and (3) better understand the projected impact of climate change on solar energy potential.

Supplemental Keywords:

environmental compatibility, renewable energy, solar power

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2015
  • Final